In close contact: Checking in at Shanghai's quarantine hotel

Andy Boreham Zhou Shengjie Dai Qian
From the outside it just looks like any normal hotel, except for two guys in full protective suits standing outside. This isn't any ordinary hotel ...
Andy Boreham Zhou Shengjie Dai Qian
Shot by Zhou Shengjie, Dai Qian and Andy Boreham. Edited by Andy Boreham. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou and Andy Boreham.

We pull up outside a hotel in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, the only thing that looks a bit out of place being two men standing outside in full protective gear. You probably still wouldn’t guess that since January, this average-looking hotel has been taken over by the government and transformed into a medical observation quarantine facility for close contacts of COVID-19 patients. This will be my workplace for the day.

Zhou Zhou, the facility’s head, and Lou Wenbo, from the city government’s office of foreign affairs, meet me outside. After the obligatory greetings we’re touring around the first floor, which is filled with dozens of crew members from numerous professions. There are doctors, nurses, psychologists and police officers in nearly every room on the first floor, hotel beds becoming their makeshift work stations as they go about their daily responsibilities looking after the 91 people in quarantine here.

They are not allowed to make physical contact with any of the guests, so all communication is done using the hotel’s internal telephone system. If anyone develops serious symptoms and doctors need to have a closer chat, a robot is on hand to enter the room and provide video chat facilities. It hasn’t needed to be used yet.

Doctor Yu Peijun is normally stationed at the district’s mental health center, but now she’s taken over the role of translator, among other things, in order to communicate with the handful of expat guests here.

“Foreigners love to sleep a lot,” she laughs. “Sometimes we phone them in the morning and they’re not awake yet, so we phone again in the afternoon and they’re still not awake. We need to try our best to remember to keep trying, because we need to regularly ask if they have any issues.” 

She tells me she has to quickly make a call and crouches down between two single beds to use the room’s phone. It’s good news: The man on the other end, an Italian, can check out the next day.

This hotel is specifically set up to quarantine those who have been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 patients. They are considered high risk, even though they have no symptoms and have tested negative themselves. Here they will be under the close observation of the medics on site for 14 days, after which they’re free to go.

Zhou tells me that his facility has been quite lucky, because since it opened way back in January, not a single patient has developed symptoms and tested positive here. “Back then we were mainly quarantining those who had come back from heavily hit areas like Wuhan,” he explains. “Now it’s changed, and we mostly have people who have returned to Shanghai from overseas.”

Suddenly, a call comes in, notifying the crew that the quarantine van is en route with three new guests — Chinese nationals who have just flown into the country and been notified that someone in the three rows in front or behind them on their planes has tested positive for COVID-19. They are now required, by law, to spend two weeks under medical observation here.

I suit up in full protective gear, because Zhou thinks it might be more beneficial for me to experience the check-in process from inside the quarantine area. I have seen and heard how tough it is to wear front-line medics’ protective gear, but I’m about to find out for myself.

The protective clothing consists of two layers, all tightly sealed and taped in place. “Your hands are really big, but we only have one size of gloves,” a nurse helping me gear up explains. “We’re going to have to tape the gloves securely in place.”

Pretty soon I’m inside at the front counter, but it’s not as welcoming as most hotels. Makeshift walls have been put in place to create a secure area, and my head feels squeezed and squashed. 

A young man walks in with his bags for processing. They’re only allowed to come in one at a time, and between each guest the entire lobby is sterilized by Chen Haiyan, who is in charge of keeping the location free of any possible virus. 

Next up is a young woman, and she looks nervous. I’m not surprised — I’d probably not be feeling great if I just found out I was a close contact either.

The check-in process is pretty straightforward, and each guest is allowed to go up to their rooms. After that I go with Chen to sterilize the entire path each guest took, walking backward from their door all the way to the elevator. The crew here are taking no risks.

Downstairs suddenly lets us know over the radio that dinner is ready to deliver — it’s 5pm, and all guests here are provided three meals a day. Soon more crew members arrive on the seventh floor, right after we’ve finished sanitizing, to deliver room service. 

“It’s not like normal hotel room service,” one of the crew says. “They can’t choose what they want or when they want it — but they can order takeout from outside if they don’t like it or want to eat something else.”

After every meal is placed on a chair outside each occupied room, crew start knocking on each door from the furthest room backward to the elevator. After a little while guests are allowed to open their doors and collect their dinner.

With no more patients set to check in at night and the dinner service complete, this quarantine hotel can begin to quieten down.

But first I need to go through the important de-suiting process, which is slow and methodical. Chen guides me through the removal of every layer, with sanitizing between each and every step. I let out a sigh of relief when I’m finally allowed to remove my head gear, removing immense pressure that had me feeling nausea and dizzy. My face looks 10 years older, covered in deep lines and red patches.

Finally it’s time for me to clock off, but the others will remain.

The next day, some lucky guests’ 14-days will be up, and the staff here will bid them farewell. Just as a new batch arrive, and the process starts all over again.

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